Probably the least likely difference maker, at least in the eyes of Florida’s white-knuckled fans, gasping for breath and hanging by a thread to the hope that the Gators would somehow pull this one out, was Reggie Lewis. He was playing corner because the underappreciated and extremely reliable Vernell Brown was on the sideline, out for the rest of the regular season with a fibula broken just above the ankle in the second quarter. That it had been a rough night for Lewis would be the understatement of the year, but he wasn’t alone. The entire Florida defense was in meltdown mode.
The Gators had a 49-42 lead in the second overtime thanks to a leaping catch of a Chris Leak pass in the right corner of the north end zone by Jemalle Cornelius, so that put victory in the hands of the same defense that had failed to protect a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter --- the same defense that had offered little resistance in the first overtime when Vanderbilt scored easily. So it is safe to say hope wasn’t springing eternal that Vanderbilt’s second overtime possession would be the end of the game.
While the Leak to Cornelius pass was reviewed by the zebra in the sky who handles instant replay, Coach Urban Meyer used the extra moments to gather his weary defensive troops around him on the sideline. As he looked around, he saw a tired bunch that included a few guys who aren’t normally among the ones that Florida depends on to make plays at crunch time.
“I just looked around at some of the guys playing for us and I saw some guys that should be out there eventually but maybe not at this moment,” said Meyer, whose team is starting to resemble a M*A*S*H unit with so many injuries. In addition to Brown, wide Dallas Baker left the game in the second quarter with a contusion to his back and tailback DeShawn Wynn dinged his shoulder on the first series and never returned.
As Meyer looked his defenders over, he knew that for Florida to walk away with a win someone would have to do something extraordinary to stop Vandy quarterback Jay Cutler, whose stat sheet for the night read 28 completions, 361 passing yards and four touchdown passes.
“I called them right before the overtime started and I said someone has to find a way to make a play to win the game,” said Meyer. “In big time games like that, that’s how it happens.”
Someone had to make a play, but who? For every blitz, for every zone, for every stunt and trick the Gators used to slow down the Commodores, Cutler seemed to have the right call and perfect timing to make the critical play at the most inopportune moment for the Florida defense.
So the defense took the field, cheered on by a crowd at The Swamp that kept hoping higher decibels would elevate the stop troops. The noise level was so great that it was impossible for the Commodore wide receivers to hear Cutler making adjustments at the line. He used hand signals to move wide receiver Earl Bennett out a couple of extra yards on the left side.
Lewis saw Cutler’s gesture and it signaled his instincts to take over. Vandy was in a four-wide spread and Lewis was out on an island, covering man to man.
“Something was fishy with that when he moved him out,” said Lewis. “I thought that has to be some kind of route to the inside and that’s what it was.”
Cutler took the snap and turned to Bennett, snapping off a dart of a throw, the kind that had been working all night long. Only this time, Bennett wasn’t all alone. This time Lewis jumped the route. He stepped in front and muscled the ball away from the Vandy wide receiver for a game-ending interception, setting off a celebration that was every bit exhilaration as it was relief.
Lewis explained, “I jumped on it and I came out with the ball” but that football represented far more than just a game-ending play against an unexpectedly difficult Vandy team that didn’t roll over and die, which is what Vandy normally does when it rolls into Gainesville every other year.
That football represented another week in the SEC East title chase for the Gators, left for dead by LSU three weeks ago but now back in the thick of things after bullying their way to a win over Georgia last week in Jacksonville. Florida still has to have some help to make it to Atlanta for the SEC championship game but help is something the Gators just can’t control. The only thing the Gators can control is the outcome of next Saturday’s SEC game in Columbia against suddenly tough South Carolina and the Old Ball Coach, who has the Gamecocks on an unlikely winning roll that is being played out in something less than Spurrier-esque fashion. That South Carolina is bowl eligible and winning with defense is almost as strange as Florida’s re-emergence into the SEC East race.
Florida can only take care of its own business and after that, it’s in the hands of Auburn or Kentucky to upset Georgia. If the Gators win and Georgia loses, then Florida goes to Atlanta for the SEC Championship, completing a remarkable recovery from the life support unit.
“It’s basically a one game season for us in the SEC,” said Meyer, aware that once the SEC business is taken care of in Columbia, Florida State looms on the horizon after a bye week. “We’re still battling for the SEC championship. Playing for championships in November is big.”
Having that extra week of life in the SEC race almost didn’t happen, though. Cutler brought the Commodores back from a 35-21 deficit in the final eight minutes of the game to force overtime. He took Vandy on a 10-play, 61-yard drive that got Vandy to 35-28 with 2:17 left in the game. After the Commodores recovered the ensuing onside kick, Cutler marched Vandy down the field to the tying touchdown (35-35) in eight plays, all within a span of 1:23 and that forced overtime.
Florida won the overtime toss and chose to defend first. Vandy got the ball first and got some help on a third down holding call against Lewis that gave the Commodores a first down at the UF eight. One play later, Jeff Jennings powered his way into the end zone off the right guard from eight yards out to give the Commodores the lead.
Florida responded with a touchdown on a Leak to Chad Jackson pass that covered nine yards on a critical third and eight situation to tied the score at 42-42 and force the second overtime.
The Gators went on offense first in the second overtime and it only took two plays for Florida to score. Markus Manson followed Lance Butler off right tackle for nine yards and on the next play, Leak found Cornelius in the corner of the end zone for what proved to be the winning touchdown.
The pass to Cornelius had a small window for completion. It was a high, arching pass to a predetermined spot and Cornelius simply outleaped two defenders to come down with the ball.
“It seemed like it was in the air for a long, long time like one of those things you just sit in the house thinking about,” said Cornelius, who played at 100 percent for the first time since he sprained his ankle against Alabama a month ago. “Once he threw it I knew I was going to come down with it.”
Having Cornelius back in the offense as a contributor couldn’t have happened at a better time. Baker, hobbled with a sprained ankle in the Georgia game, started Saturday night but he left the game in the second quarter. He spent the final 40 minutes of the game on the sidelines. Cornelius caught four passes for 34 yards to complement Jackson’s eight catches that were good for 53 yards and the one score.
There was also help in Baker’s absence from junior Kenneth Tookes, whose career production coming into the game was three catches for 34 yards. He exceeded the career totals in catches with four and in yards with 36. He had a nice 13-yard catch in the first overtime to give Florida a first down at the 12.
Manson was in the game as Florida’s featured back midway through the first series of the game, replacing DeShawn Wynn, whose already sore shoulder took a hard pop that sidelined him the rest of the way. Manson finished the game with 61 rushing yards and a touchdown to go with 48 receiving yards on six catches. When Manson needed a breather, Kestahn Moore stepped up with three carries for 28 yards and three pass receptions for 30 yards and a touchdown.
Leak played the most efficient game at quarterback that he’s had all season, hitting 32-41 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns, his first multiple-touchdown pass game since Kentucky back in late September. Leak ran the spread option offense the way it’s supposed to be run. He protected the ball (zero turnovers) and made smart decisions. Vandy’s goal was to keep the Gators from going deep and using the middle of the field, so Leak chipped away underneath. He used shovel passes, ran the option and took advantage of running opportunities to turn in the best rushing game of his career with 67 net yards and two touchdowns.
What made Leak’s performance even more impressive was the patience he showed on two scoring drives. Florida’s first possession of the game was a 13-play, 79-yard drive that consumed 7:36 of the first quarter. In the fourth quarter, he directed the Gators to a 16-play, 80-yard drive that ate up 8:38 of the clock. The overall performance was more of what Meyer’s been looking for out of Leak and the offense.
“We’re doing a little bit more of getting him on the edge,” said Meyer. “A guy who gets out on the edge has some options including one that’s run the ball. We ran some shovel pass with him, some option with him and a lot of those weren’t designed runs, they were scrambles off some of those runs were scrambles on the bootlegs.”
But as much as Leak and the offense showed up Saturday night, it still came down to that one play by the one guy that nobody expected. Lewis is a defensive back now after his three-year career at wide receiver hit the wall back in the spring. Moved to the defensive backfield, he’s played in every game but since Reggie Nelson began to emerge as a star, Lewis has been an almost forgotten man. Even with a diminished role, however, he never lost sight of his goal to be a contributor, however.
“People kept telling me your chance is going to come along so just be patient,” said Lewis. “I had to be patient. When it happened, my time came tonight when Vernell Brown went down. That was a big loss for us and I didn’t want that to happen like that.
“I’m a team player. I just want to win regardless of who’s on the field. When Vernell Brown went down, that’s a big loss for our team. I just wanted to go out there and pick up where he left off.”
The time came for Reggie Lewis when Florida was desperate for someone to make a play that would keep Florida’s championship aspirations alive. Because he answered the call at the single most critical moment, the Gators still have a pulse in the SEC East. One play by one unlikely hero and hope springs eternal at least for seven more days.